The General Assembly should take steps to protect a pair of the nation's most endangered -- and the region's most prominent -- rivers, according to a report released Tuesday by American Rivers.

Both the Cape Fear and the Neuse saw flooding as a result of Hurricane Matthew in October, with the Neuse in particular reaching historic crests around Goldsboro and Kinston. Photos from the days after the storm clearly show high water around swine farms.

In its report, America's Most Endangered Rivers 2017, the Washington, D.C.-based environmental group recommends North Carolina reinstate the swine farm buyout program it enacted after Hurricane Floyd struck in 1999 and also allow poultry farms to participate. Discussions about the swine effort in particular are already underway between environmentalists, the N.C. Pork Council and members of the General Assembly.

"Our state took a big step after Hurricane Floyd to appropriate that funding, and the time for action is now," said Matthew Starr, Sound Rivers' Upper Neuse riverkeeper. "As we look at the most imminent threats to water quality, as we look at learning from Hurricane Matthew, the time for our legislature to act is right now."

 

The buyout program

The original voluntary buyout program resulted in the state using $18.7 million in Clean Water Management Trust Fund grants to purchase conservation easements barring 43 farms in 100-year flood plains from operating swine farms or similar agricultural operations. Ultimately, 138 applied — with a rubric determining who would receive the buyout.

That program is widely regarded as playing a key role in the steep drop in swine farm flooding as a result of the 2016 storm. In 1999, during Floyd, 55 waste lagoons flooded and lagoons at six farms were breached, a total that decreased to 14 flooded lagoons and one breached lagoon during Matthew.

Andy Curliss, the CEO of the N.C. Pork Council, has previously said his organization applauds the previous buyout effort and is participating in discussions about a potential renewal. In a GateHouse Media story last week, Curliss said, "If there are discussions about another voluntary buyout program, we want to play a productive role in those."

Sound Rivers has identified 62 facilities in the 100-year flood plain, most of which are located between the Neuse and the Tar-Pamlico river basins. The American Rivers report warned the farms and their waste could become more dangerous in the coming years.

"The threat these facilities and their antiquated waste operations pose to our waters will only increase as the effects of climate change become more prevalent and North Carolina is subject to more frequent powerful storms," according to the report.

North Carolina rivers have appeared on the American Rivers list 14 times in the past, with the Neuse's 2017 designation marking the fifth time it will appear on the list. Between 1995 and 1997, the Neuse was included each year due to the impact of agricultural waste and sewage. A 2007 appearance was attributed to poorly planned development.

 

Waste's impact on water

Larry Cahoon, a marine biologist at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, said agriculture's impact on the North Carolina's river basins is likely chronic. The state ranks second nationally in hog production and third in poultry production.

"The normal practices are what they are," he said. "The groundwater transport of nutrients is continuing, the runoff transport is continuing. When you spray those materials out on the landscape, they are not going to stay still."

In recent years, the UNCW-based Lower Cape Fear River Monitoring Program, which records water quality data at 34 locations in the river basin, has recorded higher ammonia nitrogen and phosphorous levels. Both chemicals have been tied to fish kills, which have decreased steeply in recent years. Still, their presence concerns environmentalists.

"We do see signals of enhanced nutrient loading," Cahoon said. "Whether you can unambiguously attribute those to one portion of agriculture remains to be determined, but the signal is clearly rising."

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality has for decades used ambient monitoring systems scattered throughout seven river basins in the state — including the Cape Fear and the Neuse — to collect water quality data. In the days after Hurricane Matthew and again in January, DEQ staff checked the recordings at those locations, said Bridget Munger, a department spokeswoman.

That data is being used to craft a final report detailing the storm's impact on water quality, which, Munger said, is expected to be released later this month.

For environmental advocates, though, the impacts of Matthew offer some urgency to limit the impacts of major storms on those nutrient levels.

"It's human nature in this day and age to not deal with something unless it's at the forefront of people's minds, and it deserves that much attention," said Starr, the Upper Neuse river keeper. "It's important we act now so we don't have to wait for the next flood or the next big storm."